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Renowned marine conservationist and artist Richard Ellis addresses the popular myths, misconceptions, and exploits of great white sharks, tiger sharks, bull sharks, and the many other species that roam the waters of our planet
Do sharks deserve their universally bad reputation? Sharks are clearly not harmless—Shark Attack includes many true stories of seemingly unwarranted attacks on humans. Yet if sharks truly were vengeful carnivores, no beach on earth would be safe for fishing, surfing, or swimming. Ellis argues that Jaws, the popular 1975 film that misrepresented sharks in almost every detail, has damaged our perception of sharks. Today, museums and aquariums endeavor to rehabilitate the shark’s image, and environmentalists and animal rights activists struggle to slow relentless overfishing. Yet their efforts may be too late to save hundreds of shark species from near or total extinction.
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About the Author
Richard Ellis is one of America’s leading marine conservationists, and is generally recognized as the foremost painter of marine natural history subjects in the world. His paintings of whales have appeared in Audubon, National Wildlife, Australian Geographic,the Encyclopedia Britannica, and numerous other national and international publications. His shark paintings have been featured in Sports Afield, Audubon, Sport Diver, Nautical Quarterly, Reader’s Digest, and of course his own Book of Sharks—now in its seventh printing, and called the most popular book on sharks ever written. His paintings have been exhibited at one-man and group shows from coast to coast. In 2005, in conjunction with the Italian publication of his Encyclopedia of the Sea, Richard Ellis was given a one-man show of his drawings at the Galata Museo del Mare in Genoa.
Ellis is the author of more than twenty books on marine life, including Great White Shark, Men and Whales, Monsters of the Sea, The Search for the Giant Squid, The Empty Ocean, Tuna: A Love Story, The Great Sperm Whale,and Shark: A Visual History. In 2012, he was awarded the Explorers Club Communications Award and the Herman Melville Literary Award from the New York State Marine Education Association for his contributions to conservation literature. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Maneaters and Men
By Richard Ellis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Open Road Integrated Media
All rights reserved.
More than being bitten by a black mamba or a cobra; more than being mauled by a grizzly bear or chomped by a man-eating lion; more than being bitten by a black widow spider or a vampire bat—the most terrifying moment in the ongoing conflict between man and beast is an attack by a shark.
We owe that state of fear to Peter Bradford Benchley.
The son of author Nathaniel Benchley and the grandson of American humorist and Algonquin Round Table founder Robert Benchley, Peter was an alumnus of Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University. He worked for The Washington Post, as an editor at Newsweek, and as a speechwriter in the Lyndon Johnson White House. By the early 1970s, Benchley had gone shark fishing with Montauk "monster fisherman" Frank Mundus, was familiar with the world's most famous shark attack off the New Jersey shore, and was generally well versed in the reputation of great white sharks. When the author pitched the idea of a novel about a great white shark terrorizing a beach community to Doubleday editor Tom Congdon, Congdon offered him an advance of a thousand dollars on submission of the first hundred pages. The newly minted author wrote the rest of the book during 1973 in a room above a furnace company in Pennington, New Jersey in the winter, and in the summer in a converted turkey coop in Stonington, Connecticut. Jaws became the publishing sensation of the winter of 1974. And in the novel's opening paragraph, Benchley introduced the most infamous marine creature since Herman Melville's Moby Dick, written 125 years earlier.
The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail. The mouth was open just enough to permit a rush of water over the gills. There was little other motion; an occasional correction of the apparently aimless course by the slight raising or lowering of the pectoral fins as a bird changes direction by dipping one wing and lifting the other. The eyes were sightless in the black, and the other senses transmitted nothing extraordinary to the small, primitive brain. The fish might have been asleep, save for the movement dictated by countless millions of years of instinctive continuity: lacking the flotation bladder common to other fish and the fluttering flaps to push oxygen-bearing water through its gills, it survived only by moving. Once stopped, it would sink to the bottom and die of anoxia.
In 1973, Universal Studios bought the rights to Benchley's novel. Filmed on Martha's Vineyard off the coast of Massachusetts, its star was a model of a great white shark the film crews nicknamed "Bruce." According to Carl Gottlieb, a screenwriter who worked on Benchley's original script, the producers "had innocently assumed that they could get a shark trainer somewhere, who, with enough money, could get a great white shark to perform a few simple stunts on cue in long shots with a dummy in the water, after which they would cut to miniatures or something for the close-up stuff." Unfortunately for the moviemakers, white sharks are notoriously uncatchable, not to mention untrainable, and the special effects department was set to work designing a shark that could pass the scrutiny of the most demanding viewer.
The film was released in the summer of 1975, and it was a huge success. In its June 23 issue, Time magazine declared it "technically intricate and wonderfully crafted, a movie whose every shock is a devastating surprise." Its cover depicted an open-jawed shark with the caption "Super Shark." Jaws was the biggest moneymaker in cinema history, and it spawned every conceivable spin-off, from plastic sharks' teeth necklaces and T-shirts to lame imitations of Benchley's novel and lurid picture books about "Jaws of Death!" and "Killer Sharks!" There were now shark movies, shark novels, shark reports, and shark television specials.
How much of Jaws is true? Answer: Very, very little. Yes, there are great white sharks out there, and they occasionally bite people, but everything else about Jaws was wildly exaggerated fiction, from the size of the shark and its vindictivness to its hunger for human flesh. In a 1979 article in Skin Diver magazine, underwater cameraman Stan Waterman wrote, "Something there is about the shark that continues to tickle the macabre fancy of man. And it is, of course, both simple and profitable to exploit."
Benchley may have read everything he could get his hands on about the 1916 attacks, yet most of what thought he knew was wrong—attributed at the time to a single rogue shark that roamed the New Jersey beaches attacking swimmers, though it has now been shown to have been the work of several sharks, spread along ninety-five miles of coastline. To add insult to injury, the "single rogue shark" was most likely multiple bull sharks, not a great white. Truthfully, during a twelve-day period between in July 1 and July 12, no less than five men were attacked by sharks in New Jersey, four of them fatally. On July 1, twenty-three-year-old Charles Vansant, playing in the surf some fifteen yards from shore at Beach Haven, was bitten on the left thigh. Although companions dragged him ashore and quickly applied a tourniquet to his leg, he suffered a massive loss of blood, and he died less than two hours after the attack.
On July 6, at the beach resort of Spring Lake, some forty-five miles north of Beach Haven, Charles Bruder was attacked while swimming four hundred feet from shore, and both his feet were torn off. Although a lifeboat was launched immediately when he began to scream, and he was taken quickly to shore, he died within minutes.
Six days passed before another attack. Only July 12, at Matawan, thirty miles north of Spring Lake, eleven-year-old Lester Stillwell was swimming with friends when he was pulled under. Although a "large dark-gray shark" had been spotted in Matawan Creek earlier, nobody actually saw the shark that attacked Stillwell. Would-be rescuers dived into the creek to search for Stillwell's body, and one of them, a twenty-four-year-old tailor named Stanley Fisher, was savagely bitten on the right thigh. A great chunk of his thigh was removed, and even though he was rushed to a hospital, there was no way to reverse the massive tissue and blood loss and he died on the operating table.
By this time, the news of the Matawan Creek attacks had spread, but not quickly or far enough to protect twelve-year-old Joseph Dunn, who was swimming a half mile away. Fortunately, although his lower left leg was bitten and severely lacerated, no bones were crushed and no arteries were severed, and Dunn made a full recovery.
Using dynamite, guns, harpoons, spears, and nets, the residents of Matawan assaulted the waterways, hoping to capture or kill all of the sharks in the vicinity. Although many sharks were thus dispatched, not one expert from any branch of law enforcement, ocean science, or marine biology was able to prove that a shark, or sharks, was responsible for the attacks in Matawan Creek. (Conceivably, the earlier attacks at Beach Haven and Spring Lake were the work of a single shark, but even that seems unlikely.) For two days, the newspapers were full of shark reports and stories of "monsters" caught in the region. Then, on July 14, a 7.5- to 8.5-foot white shark was trapped in a drift net in Raritan Bay—just four miles northeast of the mouth of Matawan Creek—and bludgeoned to death by a man named Michael Schleisser. When this shark was cut open, it was found to contain fifteen pounds of flesh and assorted bone fragments, which may or may not have been human. One of those who "positively" identified the remains as human was Dr. Frederick A. Lucas, director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who, only a few days earlier, was quoted in the newspapers as saying that sharks could not possibly inflict the kind of damage that was done to Charles Bruder at Spring Lake.
The front page of the July 19, 1916 issue of the Harlem daily The Home ran a photograph of Michael Schleisser and the white shark. The headline of the accompanying story read, "Harlem Man in Tiny Boat Kills a 7 1/2-Foot Man-Eating Shark," followed by the lengthy and fact-filled subhead, "Beats It to Death with Broken Oar, Directly Off Matawan Creek, Where Two Brothers Were Attacked and Killed by Sea-Tiger Last Week. Examination By Director of Museum of Natural History Shows Human Bones in Shark's Stomach." Schleisser and his friend John Murphy had gone fishing from South Amboy, New Jersey, setting a small drag net that snagged the monster. The shark towed their eight-foot motorboat on a wild, stern-first ride, but Schleisser finally killed it by repeatedly bashing it on the head with a broken oar. The 350-pound carcass was taken to the offices of the newspaper at 125th Street, where "the yawning jaws and vicious teeth" were viewed by "at least 30,000 men, women, and children."
White sharks are known to inhabit the Mid-Atlantic Bight (Raritan Bay is an arm of the Bight), but there is no evidence that they have ever demonstrated an inclination to enter freshwater, there or anywhere else in the world. That particular propensity is characteristic—and even diagnostic—of only one species, the bull shark. The earlier attacks at Beach Haven and Spring Lake were likely the work of one or another bull shark. Despite the contrary "evidence," the Matawan attacks were also probably not committed by a white shark (or sharks), but rather by more than one bull shark, judging from the freshwater site and nature of the attacks. Since whatever evidence there was is now long gone, we are free to imagine—as Richard Fernicola, author of Twelve Days of Terror does—a single great white shark, finding itself in Matawan Creek, in a panic, swimming back and forth biting people, then escaping to Raritan Bay, where it is caught and killed by Michael Schleisser.
Eugene W. Gudger was an associate curator and bibliographer in the Department of Ichthyology of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. He details a 1936 attack on sixteen-year-old Joseph Troy, who was swimming about 150 yards offshore at Mattapoisett, Buzzard's Bay, Massachusetts. Troy's left leg was seized and he was dragged underwater. The bleeding boy was pulled to shore by his companion, and he was taken to New Bedford Hospital, eleven miles away. Five hours after the attack, he died from shock and loss of blood. Relying on a report from Dr. Hugh M. Smith, a fisheries biologist at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Gudger discusses at some length the identity of the attacking shark, and from the description of its color ("an unusual amount of white on the sides") and the shape of its tail, concludes that "it clearly appears that the offending shark was a man-eater (Carcharodon carcharias) estimated to be ten or twelve feet long." Furthermore, Gudger lists twenty "definite records of Carcharodon in and near Buzzard's Bay from 1871 to 1927," and details the years in which they were sighted and by whom. A man named Vinal Edwards, who was "particularly on the lookout for sharks," seems to have sighted most of them. Since there had been no recorded shark attacks—by any species—along the Massachusetts coast for the sixty-five years in question, this one was completely unexpected. And though white sharks seem to be not uncommon in Buzzard's Bay today, Gudger writes that "it may truly be said that the chance of being bitten by a shark in these waters is about on all fours with the chance of being struck by lightning in these same regions."
Relating the Buzzard's Bay attack to other attacks, Gudger says that he remembers seeing a set of jaws labeled "The Jaws of the New Jersey Man-Eater" in a fish shop. He writes, "I examined these jaws and noted the characteristic broadly triangular saw-edged teeth, which showed that these teeth came from a Carcharodon carcharias—and presumably from the New Jersey shark of 1916." The shark caught by Michael Schleisser in Raritan Bay was probably a white, but only the flesh and bones in its stomach tied it to the New Jersey attacks, and none too conclusively.
However, as the beaches of Chatham became popular with the local gray seal population, there were more and more sightings of white sharks in the shallows. "We believe that the reason the great white sharks are coming closer to shore in the Cape Cod area, specifically on the eastern shore, is because of the growing gray seal population," said Greg Skomal, a marine biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. After years of sightings in and around Cape Cod, Massachusetts, there was finally a documented great white shark attack. It was on August 19, 2009, and the victim was a seal.
Three years later, on August 1, 2012, Ballston Beach in Truro (about twenty-five miles from Chatham) was the scene of the next attack—but this time the attack was on a human. Colorado resident Chris Myers and his son, J.J., were swimming to a sandbar about eighty yards offshore when Chris was bitten on the lower part of both legs. The shark—which was identified as a great white—disappeared and Chris and J.J. swam to shore. The first great white shark attack on a human off Cape Cod in seventy-five years put the spotlight on the population of gray seals on the Cape because the sharks are coming ever closer to beaches in pursuit of the adorable critters. Once at the brink of extinction, gray seals were virtually unseen in the United States until the 1980s. However—for better or for worse—following the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the animals have established a year-round presence on Muskeget Island in Nantucket Sound. Located roughly twenty miles off Cape Cod, this is the largest seal pupping colony in US waters.
Because they occupy some of the same habitats, gray seals (Halichoerus grypus) are sometimes mistaken for harbor seals (Phoca vitulina). Grays are larger, heavier, and have a much longer snout, which accounts for the Canadian name "horsehead." The males are much larger than the females, reaching an overall length of eight feet and a weight of six hundred pounds, while the females reach only 6.5 feet in length, and are proportionately lighter. The three-foot-long pups are born with a white coat (known as a lanugo), which they molt after three weeks. There are gray seal populations in Canada and various locations in northwestern Europe, but the largest concentration is in the British Isles, especially in the Hebrides (hence the alternate spelling of "grey"). In the Western North Atlantic, large colonies are found year-round off the coast of New England, particularly Maine and Massachusetts. They have been the subject of much controversy between the fishermen who would kill them (believing they eat fish that rightfully belong to the fishermen), and the conservationists who would save them. The presence of seals or sea lions has always attracted great white sharks, but the sharks sometimes show up where there are no pinnipeds in the area.
The waters of southeastern Australia, particularly around the popular beaches of Sydney, for instance, have long been reputed to be shark-infested. In 1938, according to Austrain shark expert Gilbert Whitley, there were 557 sharks "of varieties considered dangerous" caught along the surfing beaches of Sydney: hammerheads, whalers (a group including the bull shark), tiger sharks, gray nurse sharks, and unspecified "pointers." Today, many of Sydney's beaches are "meshed": steel nets are hung from poles and cables offshore expressly to keep the sharks and the bathers separated. The Shark Menace Advisory Committee, established by the government of New South Wales, devised the scheme in 1934, and the Sydney system was adapted in the 1960s for the beaches of Durban and the Natal coast in South Africa, in response to a grisly series of shark attacks there. In both South Africa and New South Wales, the system is still in use. (The nets do have their dark side: A great many fishes and marine mammals become trapped in them and die.)
Excerpted from Shark Attack by Richard Ellis. Copyright © 2013 Open Road Integrated Media. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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